When it comes to ordained clergy in the PCA identifying themselves as gay in “orientation,” let us not pretend as though we really believe that liberty is called for. I can think of churches in the PCA that would not allow me within 100 yards of their pulpit to preach on the subject of homosexuality and human identity precisely because they know I would refute the category of “sexual orientation,” the theology of Revoice, and Side-B homosexuality. And I can think of ministers in the PCA who I would not allow to address those subjects in the church I serve. None of us truly embrace liberty in the matters addressed in Overtures 23 and 37. Nor should we.
“In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity” (In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas). That statement has often been attributed to St. Augustine who almost certainly did not say it. It seems to have its origins in the 17th century either from Roman Catholic or moderate Lutherans in Germany. Whatever the case, the saying stuck. It has found its way into the common vernacular of many churches and denominations. I once served in a non-denominational church where it was repeated copiously. But I could never get anyone to actually define the terms.
Since this year’s historic General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America I have seen the famous statement repeated by some of my fellow PCA pastors as a way to suggest that the passage of Overtures 23 and 37 are unnecessarily divisive. They seem to believe that the overtures will place too strict a standard upon our denomination and make targets of elders who identify as gay in sexual orientation.
“In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”
It’s a good saying as far as it goes. The problem is that it doesn’t go very far. Certainly, we hope to show charity in all things. Let’s be on board with that one. How about the essentials? Is unity called for? Absolutely. But what exactly are the essentials of the Christian faith? I’ve always considered the essentials to be those doctrines that we cannot deny if we are to be considered a Christian in any meaningful sense. In that case perhaps the essentials are those doctrines affirmed in the Apostles Creed. If that is the standard, then I can get behind that.
But it’s not the calls to unity in essentials and charity in all things that present the problem. It is the middle clause that presents a problem: “In non-essentials, liberty.” I take liberty here to mean what it typically means: freedom. If we define the essentials of our faith as those things which must be affirmed if one is to be a Christian, then I take the non-essentials to mean those doctrines and practices over which Christians may disagree. The idea is that in those doctrines and practices deemed non-essential for the salvation of one’s soul we should grant freedom to believe and practice whatever we think best represents the teaching of Scripture. And there is a sense in which I agree with this. I don’t hassle the local Methodist or Mennonite churches in my community. I don’t give dirty looks to the charismatic pastor who lives down the street from me. We believe different things about matters that are important to us, so we attend different churches. None of the Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran, Brethren, PC(USA) or Mennonite churches in my community say, “As long as it does not have a direct bearing upon your eternal destiny, you may believe, teach, and practice whatever you like in our church, because we believe that in non-essentials we have liberty.”
I’m genuinely curious why any of us repeat “In non-essentials liberty,” when none of us actually practice it. Are our beliefs about election, the scope of the atonement, the nature of heaven and hell, the first chapters of Genesis, last things, biblical inerrancy, assurance of salvation, and sanctification open to the wide plains of liberty in our churches? Do our practices of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and church government; our understanding of worship, ordination, the gifts of the Spirit, and gender all fall under the banner of “in non-essentials liberty”?